LAKELAND — A corporate gift of enough land for a new $200-million University of South Florida campus in Lakeland has been lauded for its public benefits.
But the company donating the land, the Williams Acquisition Holding Co., stands to reap some benefits of its own.
That's because the subsidiary of an Oklahoma-based natural gas pipeline conglomerate owns 5 square miles next to the future campus, enough for a small town. The company hopes the campus, its faculty and students will trigger the need for thousands of homes and millions of square feet of stores and offices.
"The new USF campus will produce sizable economic impact," a company consultant predicted in a 2004 letter. "USF's economic activity will ripple through the economy."
It's a well-established model in Florida. Donate land for a university, then sell the land around it later at a steep profit. It worked like that in the 1990s with the birth of Florida Gulf Coast University near Fort Myers.
Williams beat four other large landowners in 2003 for the chance to donate its 530 acres south of Interstate 4. All lawmakers have to do is approve money to build the campus — starting at $15-million this year.
USF president Judy Genshaft said whatever profit Williams reaps from the donation didn't sway a land selection committee or the USF board of trustees.
"(The Williams project) never entered my mind," Genshaft said. "We treated everyone the same way in a fair and legal process."
But Louis Roeder, whose company offered land farther south, said Williams seemed to have an edge from the start.
"It was clear after the first or second meeting (USF) wanted the I-4 site," Roeder said. "There was no good faith coming from USF."
USF administrators deny favoring anyone and insist the I-4 location was just the best site.
But records show that Williams representatives and a state senator with his own interests were playing key roles in the deal months before the public was officially notified USF was looking for land.
In 1999, USF began talking about a new Lakeland campus with state officials, including then-state Rep. J.D. Alexander.
At the same time, Williams was revising plans for more than 5,000 acres of a former phosphate strip mine. The company had tried to develop the land for years. By 2001, officials were talking to Genshaft. Williams offered land a year later.
"We believe that your location is a wonderful expansion opportunity," Genshaft wrote Williams on March 11, 2002, nearly eight months before USF advertised for bids for campus land.
Roeder, whose company spent $100,000 on experts and consultants to compete against Williams, said the letter confirmed his suspicion that USF favored Williams all along.
"If we had known about the letter, we never would have applied," he said.
In an e-mail, a Williams spokeswoman wrote that the site was chosen through a public request for proposal process with four competitors, but did not respond to an interview request.
USF was obligated under state rules to seek offers from other large landowners because gifts of land to universities often bring a lucrative reward for donors.
The textbook example of this cause and effect was set by Alico, a large agricultural company controlled by the family of Alexander, now a Republican state senator from Lake Wales. The company made a donation to Florida Gulf Coast University in 1992. It later sold land around the campus at sizable markups.
USF officials consulted with Alexander during their selection process. He played such a key role in getting state funds for the campus that USF officials called him the project's "quarterback."
Alexander said he didn't favor the Williams site, preferring another site in Bartow. But the law firm representing Williams was the same one Alexander hired in 2005 to lobby for a road project that also stands to benefit from the Lakeland campus.
Alexander said the campus doesn't affect the toll road, the proposed $7-billion Heartland Parkway, which would stretch from Polk to Collier counties and across property owned by companies Alexander controls.
"At this point, there is no Heartland Parkway," he said.
A state study said the road is currently unfeasible. It would need large projects to be developed in the next few years to create a demand for it.
The Lakeland campus is such a project, according to a top state transportation official. "The USF campus only adds to the feasibility of the parkway," said Stan Cann, a Department of Transportation secretary. "It's a traffic generator."
Staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or firstname.lastname@example.org